Slimmed Down, Up in the Air

A new lightweight, design-forward private aircraft takes flight.

A new lightweight, design-forward private aircraft takes flight.

For all their associations with slick deal-makers and Champagne-quaffing plutocrats, executive jets are not built out of Teflon. They are fashioned from materials that fray, chip, degrade, and—gasp!—fall out of style. To help shield their cabins against the vicissitudes of fashion, one high-flying manufacturer has recently drawn inspiration from terra firma.

Embraer’s newly introduced ACE (Aircraft Customizations by Embraer) initiative, extended to current owners of its Phenom 100 jets, is a retrofit program informed by the latest sport-luxury automobile design trends. Nowhere is the inheritance clearer than in the jets’ upgraded seats, which boast diamond-stitched leather cushions, carbon fiber shrouds, and aluminum spines peeking out from lateral upholstery bands. Picture the richness and verve of Aston Martin, transposed to 35,000 feet.

Embraer, based in Brazil, has traditionally refurbished customers’ planes to look as they did when new. The ACE program marks a radical departure, not just for the nearly 50-year-old company, but for the executive jet industry—not that owners are requesting iridescent paint jobs or leopard print headliners.

“Aircraft owners are somewhat hesitant to go too bespoke,” says Jay Beever, vice president of interior design for Embraer. “It’s like high-end real estate: There’s a limit to how silly they’ll get with the house, because they know they’ll eventually have to sell it.”

Consequently, Beever’s team mines a safe, even complementary, aesthetic vein: luxury GTs and racecars. But the ACE approach doesn’t stop at surfaces. Like high-end automotive manufacturers that incorporate lightweight metals and carbon composites in their manufacturing, Embraer sniffed out opportunities for saving weight—as long as comfort was not compromised.

“When you ask how you could save on weight, the usual response is, ‘Let’s use thinner leather,’ which just cheapens the product,” Beever says. “So we said, ‘Let’s add more weight where it’s appreciated, and less where it’s not.’”

BMW, McLaren, and other sport-luxury manufacturers have recently championed a structural striptease, offering glimpses of carbon fiber or aluminum sheathing at door sills and pillars. That kind of peep show translates perfectly to a jet cabin, Beever argues. “A seat? It’s a leather sock with foam underneath,” he says. “But beneath all that is a lot of machine-billet aluminum, a lot of mechanical art that is usually hidden. We exposed pieces around the base and back of the chair to remind people that they’re in an exceptional aircraft.”

Through judicious trims, as much as five pounds per seat were cut out—a remarkable amount for aircrafts like the Phenom 100. Weight, however, is primarily saved in its cabinetry. “We’re using a carbon fiber structure with an .041-inch sheet titanium countertop,” Beever says.

Outside, customers can specify racing-style numbers for the wings. They also receive complete digital renderings of their ACE-upgraded jet before a single stitch is sewn.

It all comes at a price, though not one that someone who bought a $4 million jet would balk at. “It can be 10 percent of the jet’s pre-owned value,” Beever says of a comprehensive ACE retrofit. “So if a Phenom 100 is $2.5 million on the pre-owned market, an owner can probably afford the $250,000 to $350,000.”

(Photo: Courtesy Embraer)

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